The ‘amazing and wonderful’ cemetery in Bristol where visitors can enjoy leisurely walks and good coffee
It’s been voted one of the best cemeteries in the UK
and live on Freeview channel 276
It might not be your first choice of day trip, but if you’re looking to ramble in nature, enjoy incredible architecture or discover more about Bristol’s history, Arnos Vale Cemetery is a surprisingly good shout.
The huge site, on the Bath Road, is far from just a burial ground - it’s become a popular spot for a leisurely walk, a catch up with a coffee and even film night.
And now visitors have voted it the fourth best out of 12,000 historic cemeteries, churchyards and burial grounds across the UK - no mean feat.
One wrote: “My friend and I met my daughter at the Arnos Vale Cafe and, after a refreshing cuppa, we wandered around the cemetery, amazed at the hugeness of it all - the beautiful rewilding that’s been allowed to proliferate, fantastic flowers, shrubs and trees everywhere. Amazing and wonderful.”
History of the cemetery
The cemetery was designed by Charles Underwood in the style of a Greek Necropolis.
Within a few years of its opening in 1837 it became the most fashionable place to be buried in Bristol, and many are still surprised to learn that it remains a working cemetery to this day.
In the late 1980s, the cemetery began to decline as income dwindled and in 1998 it reached crisis point when it lost its cremation licence - the owners annouced they were closing the cemetery and locking the gates.
But thanks to a fierce campaign by dedicated volunteers and a £4.8m National Lottery Grant, the cemetery was saved and is now a leafy, tranquil place for visitors to explore and reflect. Let’s take a look.
Woodland and wildlife
At the heart of the cemetery is its Arcadian landscape, but it’s also set out across acres of ancient woodland, home to all kinds of wildlife.
Rare visitors like firecrest and woodcock birds find shelter in the cemetery in winter, and unusual migrants such as pied flycatchers and redstarts stop off to refuel on their long journeys in spring and autumn.
Slow-worms like the cemetery’s long grass, lichens decorate the tombstones and, at night, bats feed over the trees while badgers and foxes forage below.
If you’re looking to ramble in nature without venturing too far outside the city centre, Arnos Vale isn’t a bad bet.
Arnos Vale café and exhibition
On the edge of the cemetery in the Spielman Centre you’ll find Arnos Vale cafe, a fusion of Victorian and modern architecture and a great place for a spot of tea after a few hours exploring the 45 acre site.
There’s seating inside of the cafe and out, along with great coffee and a range of handmake cakes, snacks and ice-cream.
The building boasts a small exhibition on the basement floor all about the history of the cemetery as well, featuring an original 19th Century crematorium machine and coffin cart.
The cemetery has a number of listed building and monuments, including the Grade II listed Anglican mortuary chapel.
It’s the grandest building in the cemetery, set at the crest of two inclines which enhances its proportions ad stunning bell tower.
The building has been restored to its former excellence, including the plasterwork and tiled floor, after falling into disrepair in the 1980s.
It is now used for events including funerals, concerts and weddings and is usually open to visitors curious to have a look inside.
Tours and events
If you’d like to find out more about the site from an expert, there are a number of tours each day including the Sculpture, Morbid Curiosity and Murder, Mystery and Mayhem tours.
Other events include atmospheric outdoor film screenings - imagine watching The Nightmare Before Christmas among the tombs at Halloween.
Or you can get hands on in an array of workshops such as den building, bug hunting and fire making. There’s even a minfulness and compassion workshop for those who want to build on the tranquility of the cemetery.
Chhatri of Raja Ram Mohan Roy
More than 300,000 people are buried or scattered at Arnos Vale, including notable people such as Rovers legend Harry Bamford, the poet Dora Greenwell and Bristol tobacco merchants William and Henry Wills.
One of the most beautiful monuments in the cemetery is the listed chhatri or Indian tomb, resting place of Raja Ram Mohan Roy and clearly visible from the entrance on Bath Road.
The Raja was an extremely influential religious and political thinker who died in Bristol in 1833 while visiting the city with his adopted son.
During his lifetime he stressed the importance of education for Indians, campaigned for women’s rights and worked to end the traditional practice of sati: the burning of widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands.
More than 500 British Commonwealth servicemen and women from both World Wars are buried or listed at the cemetery, mostly from military hospitals of the area.
Most of the 356 servicemen from World War I are buried in the ‘Soldiers Corner’ plot near the main entrance.
Notable burials include Elsie Joy Davison, the first British female pilot to die in World War II, along with World War I heroes Harry Blanshard Wood and Daniel Burges.